Birthing a New Baby



I feel like I’ve been in this exact same place before. It’s a place where I’m waiting for something important to happen. Everyone seems to be looking at me as if I’m the one who is supposed to make it happen. And yet I have absolutely no control over when it happens. I have a plan in place for what I’m supposed to do once the snowball starts rolling down the hill. But the moment the snowball starts to roll is outside my control.


The last time I was in this place was in the fall of 1993. I had been pregnant since January. The baby showers were over and little outfits already washed and folded. Diapers were stacked on the changing table and the crib was ready. Friends called regularly to check on my progress. By the end of September my maternity clothes were tight and I was starting to feel like a Winnebago. On a trip to Saint Vincent’s Medical Center for my weekly appointment, I approached an elevator where several people were already waiting. They looked at me then decided to take the stairs.  Trying to sit at a desk to do my copy editing job was so uncomfortable I started my maternity leave even though I had planned to work right up until delivery.


After I started my leave, my mother came. We tried to do things to stay busy. I took walks, wrote thank-you notes, polished my nails, re-read all the books my obstetrician had given me, reorganized the pantry, cleaned out closets, and invited people over for dinner. But after dinner, the entertainment was always the same, everyone sat around looking at me as if I could make it happen. Two weeks past the due date friends stopped calling because nothing was more depressing than hearing that I was still waiting.


Today I’m playing another kind of waiting game. This time I’m an author birthing a book.


This book started after the baby from my first big wait grew into a teenager. She wrote a paper for her ninth grade history project that was so special, we both knew it simply had to be expanded into a book. Jennifer stays so busy with school and sports and Girl Scouts and other activities that I’ve been driving the bus to get the book published.


 It is so very, very close. Weeks overdue, and the wait is painful.


Any minute now I’m expecting to see the review copy of the finished product. Any day now I can announce that the book is available for purchase.


But meanwhile, I’m waiting.



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Join me in sending a Thanksgiving message

Have you ever had to adjust the meal time for your holiday gathering or have an empty spot at the table because a family member had to work? We all have. And when the family member who has to work is a soldier or a health care professional or a first responder or works somewhere like a gas station or pharmacy that really needs to be open on the holiday, we can understand. We don’t like it, but we can understand.

But if one of my family members had to miss family time just to satisfy the greed and thoughtless whim of someone whose life is so miserable they have to shop ON THE HOLIDAY, I’d be angry.

Bargains? Are you kidding me? I’ve looked at some of the sale previews. And it’s not worth it. A cheap model of a GPS? A crappy digital camera for half price? A TV that’s a last year’s model of a brand nobody ever heard of? The stores have a few of these “good” items ready for the unethical bait and switch scheme. They want to lure you into the stores with promises of incredible bargains. They want to see snatch and grab and people fighting for stuff and pushing on doors. And yet if you really look at what they are offering, the merchandise is still not worth the price, even at the sale price—IF you can get it at the sale price. Who really wants a bathrobe with a Christmas tree embroidered on the pocket? And who needs it so desperately that they can’t wait until the store opens on FRIDAY?

Please join me in sending a message to retailers this Thanksgiving. Let’s tell them loud and clear that we have lives and that our family times are worth more than their cheap crap. The best way to send the message is this: DO NOT GO SHOPPING ON THURSDAY. And no, I’m not just saying that so you will stay home and leave more “bargains” for me. I’m serious. When Megamart and Dartboard open their doors Thursday night, let’s make them hear nothing but crickets. Let’s have the managers checking their watches and wondering if they’ve got the time right.

Let’s tell them that Thanksgiving is an important holiday all on its own. It’s not just a big meal before a shopping marathon. And if you’ve cooked the Thanksgiving dinner, tell the shoppers in the family you don’t appreciate it when they eat and run just to get to the mall first before somebody else gets the last one of JC Penney’s ugly, crappy snow globes.

Thanksgiving is about family and being together without the commercialism of gifts. And the retailers hate it because they can’t get a piece of it. So let’s ALL tell them: “Hands off Thanksgiving. We’ll shop Friday (at a reasonable hour). But on Thursday, we are going to hold hands around the table, give every family member an opportunity to say what they are thankful for, eat turkey and dressing and pie, and play board games, and watch football and old movies, maybe rake a few leaves into a pile for the kids to play in or toss the football around in the yard, re-tell favorite family stories, and NOT GO SHOPPING!”

Please share this message with everyone you know. The more people who join us in sending this message to retailers, the fewer empty chairs we will have at our holiday tables.

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Happy Veterans Day

Tomorrow is Veterans Day and I’m sorry to admit that until a few years ago, I hardly ever noticed Veterans Day on the calendar. When you work for companies that don’t recognize the day as a holiday it’s too easy to ignore.

My daughter’s elementary school made a huge production out of Veterans Day every year. They started planning months ahead. They got the kids to invite every veteran they knew and the older grades put on a musical extravaganza. It was hard to walk through the school the day of the program without tears. Everywhere you looked there were little kids proudly escorting their favorite veterans—fathers, uncles, neighbors, friends, and even a few aunts and moms, but lots of grandfathers. There were flags waving and cameras flashing. One year my parents came all the way from Florida for the big event and my Dad said it was one of the best programs he had ever been a part of.

Today I am a contract worker on an assignment with the US Department of Veterans Affairs. It is a wonderful organization that does a lot of amazing things to honor those who have served. This afternoon the US Secretary of Veterans Affairs sent out an email to all VA employees in observance of Veteran’s Day. It included an inspiring message to more than 300,000 employees as well as a link to a website where we could view photos of some of the 100,000 veterans who work for VA.

When I opened the link and began to see some of the photos I was overcome with appreciation and admiration for these men and women who have served their country and now continue to serve those who have served. I was also surprised that I felt a little jealous. Every day, my work is geared toward serving Veterans and I’m a little jealous that I’m not a veteran myself. But I tried.

See when I was in 8th grade the guidance counselor at school gave my class a test that measured career ambitions against career expectations and mine didn’t match. They told me that if I wanted to actually do the kinds of things I said I wanted to do I was going to need to go to college and I had checked the box to saying I wasn’t planning to go to college. It wasn’t that I was lazy, I was a preacher’s kid and I knew my parents didn’t have enough money to send me to college. I watched my older brothers trying to hold down jobs while they took classes at the junior college and it seemed like an impossible dream.

Then in high school someone put out an announcement saying that if you wanted to go to college but didn’t have money for college, you should come to a meeting in Room 204. I thought, “Yes! This is just what I need.” Turned out it was a meeting with a Navy Recruiter. I watched the presentation with interest and couldn’t wait to tell my parents all about it.

That afternoon after I got off the bus and walked down the long driveway, I found my mother at the sewing machine in her bedroom. I showed her the materials and was bubbling over with the spiel about “Join the Navy. See the World.” But my mother blew up my ship before it ever even left the port.

My mother simply said, “No.”




Then she said emphatically, “No daughter of mine is joining the Navy and that’s all there is to it.”

I argued, “But they’ll pay for college.”

She said, “We will find another way to pay for college.”  Then she left the room and the conversation was over.

Modern military recruiters are backed by entire advertising campaigns geared toward parents like my mother. But I doubt they could have swayed her.

In the end my Mother was right. I didn’t personally have The Right Stuff for the Navy—or the Army or the Air Force either for that matter. And we did figure out another way to pay for college.

But some of the girls I went to school with did join the military. THEY did have the Right Stuff. They served in far-flung locations and they’ve seen the world. Today THEY are Veterans. They are still beautiful, still ladies. And I’m proud to know them. I’m thankful for their service to our country and thankful their mothers were more open to the idea of women in the military than mine was.

So to all my Veteran friends and VA co-workers, male AND FEMALE: thank you and Happy Veterans Day.

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A Spilled Secret

My senior year of college, a friend who had graduated the year before and gotten a job and an apartment in town invited a whole gang of close friends over for a Thanksgiving dinner before we all left town for the holidays. A few of us girls went over to help him tidy up the bachelor pad and help with the final preparations before everyone else arrived. After we got there a couple of the girls decided to make a quick trip to the store while two of us stayed behind to help Bob.

While they were gone the timer went off indicating it was time to take the turkey out of the oven. We held our breath as Bob reached for the flimsy aluminum foil pan that was full almost to the top with a huge golden brown turkey and a pan full of bubbling broth. Twenty-nine years later I still remember the scene in slow motion: As soon as he lifted the pan, the corner buckled, at least a gallon of boiling turkey broth spilled over the side, we all screamed and jumped backwards and the turkey hit the floor with a sound I shall never forget as long as I live.

With more than a dozen friends on the way over, what else could we do? We picked up the turkey and put it on a platter. We reasoned that with the river of broth that hit the floor first, the turkey hadn’t actually touched the floor. We quickly mopped up the broth and sort of carved the now misshapen bird.  We put the pile of turkey on the dining room table, thanked God that no one had been injured, swore we’d carry the secret to our graves, and were just hiding the evidence of the disaster when the others got back.

Cindy was everyone’s favorite bossy loudmouth. After seeing the turkey on the dining room table, she stormed into the kitchen with hands on hips to ask why we didn’t wait before we carved it. When she stepped from the carpeted hall into the kitchen she lost her footing on the wet floor and went skating across the room.

“What did you do in here?”

“We mopped the floor.”

“What did you mop it with? Grease?”

From then on, we couldn’t look at each other without laughing. And of course we confessed the secret we had vowed to keep. Everyone ate turkey anyway and we had a great afternoon together.

All these years later, I never cook a turkey without thinking about Bob, Cindy, Alison, Dana, Doug, Debbie, Robert, and all the other friends. And as I wipe up the inevitable splatters of turkey juice, I smile with the memory of a much larger mess, precious friends, and a spilled secret.

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Chambers County Alabama Stew—Smith Estes Version

Other than politics and religion one of the most controversial topics in the Deep South centers around the origins of Brunswick Stew. That topic ranks right up there with whether barbecue sauce ought to be sweet or tart, how you ought to fry chicken, and what belongs and doesn’t belong in cornbread dressing.

I prefer not to get into the Brunswick Stew argument so to solve that problem I’m officially renaming my family’s recipe. It has traditionally been known as Brunswick Stew but from this day forward, I plan to call it Chambers County Alabama Stew—Smith/Estes Version.

When I was a little girl in the 1960s, my Smith grandparents kept stew in their freezer in little plastic boxes. It was the original fast food. Warmed up and spooned over a slice of Sunbeam Bread with a few potato chips on the side it was heaven on a plate.

My Dad said when he was a boy in the 1930s, the making of stew was a community activity. The neighbors would get together and someone would donate a hog, another family contributed hens or chickens, and other families brought vegetables. They cooked the stew, ate together, and everybody took home enough for supper that night.

Stew became a part of big community events like the Rural Electric Cooperative’s annual barbecue. And even today stew takes a place of honor at the barbecue fundraisers for the Ridge Grove Volunteer Fire Department. One of my mother’s cousins told me that it may have been changed since then, but when the fire department first started barbecuing they started with my grandfather’s recipe.

In my family, stew isn’t just a memory it’s still a staple. But I have to admit, the original-original stew recipe doesn’t hold much appeal for me. I’m a wimp when it comes to gastronomy and I’m a bit squeamish about the idea of eating something made with a hog’s head or any other internal parts I’d rather not think about. But I do love today’s recipe for the newly named Chambers County Alabama Stew—Smith/Estes Version.

Several years ago my parents modernized the original recipe taking out things our family didn’t like (We like our stew without butterbeans and okra—we think those are best in vegetable soup.) and removing a huge percentage of the fat content of the original version. Making it is still a pretty big job, but with this adapted recipe you can do it indoors on a stove instead of having to cook it over an open fire in a pot the size of a small swimming pool. Be prepared. This recipe makes a lot of stew.


Cooked pork loin or pork roast (fat removed)

Cooked chicken (breasts or thighs or a combination or a whole chicken or hen) bones and fat removed

1 gallon canned diced tomatoes

1 gallon canned whole kernel corn

2-3 pounds potatoes, peeled

2-3 pounds onion, peeled

1 cup lemon juice

2 bottles of ketchup (big bottles or little bottles, depending on personal taste)

Chili sauce, Tabasco, or other hot sauce (optional)



The ingredients usually fill two large stock pots so as ingredients are prepared, divide between the two pots.

Grind meats in an old-fashioned food grinder or a grinder attachment of a mixer or chop fine in a food processor in small batches.

Grind onions and potatoes or chop fine in food processor in small batches.

Puree tomatoes in a blender.

Puree whole kernel corn in a blender. (Don’t use already creamed corn, for some reason it tends to make the stew scorch on the bottom).

Cook on medium-low temperature, stirring frequently, until potatoes and onions are done.

Stir in ketchup and lemon juice.

Add salt and hot sauce to taste or leave it mild and add seasoning to individual servings.

If the stew is too thick, it can be thinned with water or broth.

Scoop into pint and quart-sized freezer containers and cool before freezing.

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One Really Good 9/11 Memory

One Really Good 9/11 Memory

Despite the unspeakable horrors of one of the worst days in American history, I cling to one precious, precious memory of the impact of those attacks.

Maybe it was the day after or maybe it was the week after, but the nation was still reeling and tottering and trying to get used to a new definition of normal. New York and Pennsylvania were still the top news stories on the radio as I made my crawling commute down the congested Highway 280 corridor in Birmingham, Alabama.

Yes. As far away as Alabama our minds were on New York—even for those of us who had never set foot outside the South. We were crushed and broken and crying for both our fellow Americans and our definition of America.

I was wedged in traffic in the center lane behind a van loaded with a roll of carpet. The back doors of the van were open and the roll completely filled the opening, spilling out the back by several feet. When the light changed the van started to move and that giant roll of carpet fell out—not all the way out but definitely on the pavement in the middle of the road in a way that made it obvious the van wasn’t going anywhere. And on Highway 280 in Birmingham if one van isn’t moving, hundreds of people are going to be late for work.

The van’s driver and passenger (the carpet installers) got out to assess the situation and momentarily stood helplessly wondering what to do. This wasn’t just a rolled up rug. It was a massive roll of carpet big enough to cover a vast area of a commercial building. It had probably been loaded into the van with a forklift and there was probably another forklift waiting at the job site to unload it. There was no way two people could put it back in the van.

As they reached for cell phones, dumbfounded as to who they should call first, the most amazing thing happened. A four-door pickup truck loaded with surveyors was beside me, on the other side a pair of plumbers. Just ahead another truck and another set of strong arms. A sports car and a luxury sedan were also nearby driven by men dressed like they were on their way to office jobs. They all seemed to notice the situation at the same time and they caught each other’s eyes. Speaking with just their eyes and nods of their heads, they put their vehicles in park, unhooked their seatbelts, and stepped out onto the pavement. Within seconds, those strangers had joined their hands and their shoulders and lifted that huge roll of carpet back into the van. Before the carpet installers even realized what was happening their rescuers were back in their trucks and cars waiting for the light to turn green.

Because of a row of 18 wheelers behind me, other commuters on the road that morning were shielded from seeing why traffic had temporarily stalled. Drivers just one row back missed the miracle I had just witnessed. And even though I saw it, I was still in disbelief.

That one brief moment, more than any monument or memorial could ever do, told me loud and clear that my Country is still strong. That moment told me that despite an unfortunate proliferation of miscreants, terrorists, thugs, greedy bureaucrats, and deluded politicians, this country still belongs to people who care about others and try to do the right thing. And I still love America.

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My fearless protectors

Life in a Forest is not without adventures. Two very large owls share the yard and they keep surprising me with how well-hidden they are when sitting in the trees and how startling they are when they suddenly take flight. Several neighbors have seen a pair of foxes. He hasn’t been by lately, but a while back there was a black bear making the rounds. A few weeks ago Dad killed a small, non-poisonous snake that had somehow gotten inside the house, and a few weeks later he killed a medium-sized very poisonous water moccasin way too close to the house. There’s almost always at least one lizard on the outside of the porch screen. And Thursday afternoon when I opened my car door a little green tree frog tried to hop inside.

This morning Bean saw a movement and heard a flutter under a chair in the bedroom. He started barking like crazy and I came close to panic. Both dogs stared at the space under the chair, sniffing, barking, and growling. I located a flashlight, terrified of what I might find. Even with a flashlight, I couldn’t see anything, but the dogs were sure something was under there. Bean is by no means aggressive, but I reluctantly gave him the OK to go in and get whatever it was he sensed under the chair. With the same caution he had used the day he found the water moccasin, Bean went in and pounced. Then triumphantly gave me the offending plastic bag. Evidently, the breeze from the ceiling fan had blown it under the chair. I praised both dogs for their bravery and gave them a treat.

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A Fuzzy Gray Photo and the Fourth of July

First view of US at end of World War II

            I recently rediscovered a fuzzy gray photograph that has been in a well-worn old family album for as long as I can remember. The brown album cover is broken and the old black and white pictures are no longer held in place on the black paper pages by the little black corner stickers that now fall out when you turn the pages.

            As a little girl I spent hours studying the family photo collection, but this picture is one I never paid much attention. It shows some soldiers’ backs and shoulders. They are looking out toward the water and you can see the front half of a war ship in the background. There is also a tiny boat in the distance. Farther out there’s something else that seems to be the focus of the soldiers.

            How did I miss the significance of this fuzzy gray photo all these years? The object in the distance is the Statue of Liberty! My veteran Dad took the picture in 1946. It was his first glimpse of America after almost a year in Europe. Soldiers crowded shoulder to shoulder at the rail of the ship to gaze at Lady Liberty and cheer with excitement that they were almost home.

            Even though he went to gunnery school and was trained to drop bombs from airplanes, my Dad never saw combat. His crew had already been given orders for Europe when the war ended so their assignment changed. They flew a plane that had been fitted with cameras and instead of dropping bombs they took aerial photographs. But of all the miles of film my dad exposed, I doubt there’s a single picture more significant than the one of New York Harbor in 1946.

            How many soldiers saw this same view on their trip back to the United States? A whole generation was called to duty. They went, they served, they fought, and some came home. They came back different from when they left. Farm boys and small town boys had seen parts of the world they’d never imagined outside of history books. They came back men: seasoned, experienced, and ready to take their place in the world. Some had seen blood and death and their first glimpse of America at the end of their tour was the symbol of the freedom they had been fighting for.

            A fuzzy, gray photo just three inches by two inches—easy to overlook, easy to forget. Yet today it gives me chills. He is 85 years old now, but my Dad can still tell stories about the places he went and the things he saw during World War II. And more than 60 years later, he remembers the thrill of seeing Lady Liberty from the bow of the ship headed home.

            This year when I see the fireworks on the Fourth of July I’ll be thinking about that fuzzy gray photo and all the joy and thankfulness it represents: freedom and life worth celebrating.

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Cookies for Dr. Campbell

Why I Love to Cook

Most days my cooking just gives physical nourishment and keeps hunger pangs at bay. But occasionally I hit a home run by preparing food people really love. And when food can spark a memory like the one in this story… that’s why I love to cook.

Dr. L.L. Campbell was old when I met him. He had retired from his medical practice and was working at the hospital as vice president in charge of physician affairs when I worked for him. He had serious health issues of the kind that would have caused most people to give up. But Dr. Campbell was not most people.

A hospital administration office is a high stress place. Clinical departments, support departments, business offices, employees, managers, nurses, physicians, physicians’ staff, patients, patient families, and administrators all wind together like a bowl of spaghetti. Every one has their own agendas and priorities but they all go in different directions at breakneck speed and everyone thinks their issue is the most important. Dr. Campbell had a way of bringing calm to the chaos like a cool drink of water.

With his calm, quiet demeanor and the wisdom of his experience and years, people sought him out for advice. Doctors of all ages and administrators from all areas of the hospital came to talk to Dr. Campbell. But before he gave anybody advice, he listened to what they had to say. He waited for the whole story before he offered an opinion.

Dr. Campbell talked to me a lot. He shared with me his insightful observations of human nature, liberally illustrated with anecdotes from his life as the only child of an elderly preacher, a medical student, a young doctor with a wife and small children, and later as a middle-aged divorced doctor in the dating world, a step-parent, and eventually as a grandparent and an elder statesman in his own right.

Here are just a few of the many lessons he taught me:

  • A top-notch doctor going to bat for his patients can often resemble a two-year-old throwing a tantrum.
  • Administrators usually know when the organizations they lead need to make major changes and they usually know what changes need to be made. But they also know board members, managers, and employees probably won’t listen when they try to tell them to change. That’s why they hire consultants. And the more expensive the consultants, the more likely people are to do what they recommend.
  • If you actually read the precautions on prescription medication, you’ll never take anything.
  • If you aren’t going to do what the doctor tells you to do, going to the doctor is a waste of time—yours and the doctor’s.
  • Even though your mother always felt your forehead, the only way to tell for sure if a kid has a fever is with a thermometer.

Even though he was a brilliant man of science with deep feelings, he nearly always kept a poker face. Except for a twinkle in his eyes and a twitch in his beard when he laughed at the latest doctor joke, he didn’t usually let his feelings show. Maybe he hid  his feelings to maintain his professionalism or maybe he was used to wearing a mask to hide his physical pain, but one day I saw a peek at how deep Dr. Campbell’s feelings really ran. 

I had made cookies and taken them to work. The container was almost empty by the time Dr. Campbell got a cookie. One bite and the look in his eyes told me I had given him a memory of something very old and very far away. He told me the taste reminded him of the cookies his mother made and she had been dead for more than 50 years. I’m certain his mother and I were not using the same recipe. Mine called for cream cheese and he said his mother would not have had access to cream cheese. But there was something similar about the taste that took him across years and miles to his mother’s kitchen.

When Dr. Campbell’s birthday rolled around, I made a double batch—enough for him to share with all the well-wishers who would be stopping by. But instead of sharing, Dr. Campbell took the box of cookies into his office, closed the door and spent the morning remembering his mother. 

Chewy Cheesecake Cookies

½ cup butter, softened

1 cup sugar

½ cup chopped pecans

3 oz. cream cheese (not the whole package), softened

1 cup plain flour

Cream butter and cream cheese together. Gradually add sugar, beating until light and fluffy. Add flour and beat well. Stir in pecans. Drop by teaspoonfuls onto baking sheet, leaving room between cookies for them to spread out. Bake at 375 degrees for 12-13 minutes or until edges turn brown. Cool for a few minutes on cookie sheet before removing to cooling rack.

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How big are a kitten’s britches?

            I can sew a little bit, but I wouldn’t know where to begin making britches for a kitten. And I certainly don’t know how big they would be if I were to try to make a kitten’s britches out of a patch of blue sky.

            My cousin Becky was visiting from Alabama the weekend the church youth group was planning a day trip canoeing down Juniper Run. I was excited for Becky to get to know my church friends and looking forward to a day of fun on the water.

            But Saturday morning dawned wet and miserable. The rain would stop occasionally but the sky stayed gray and gloomy.

            As teenagers began to arrive, my pastor/daddy and T.C. Grant and a few other adults stood in a circle in the church yard deciding if the trip was a go or a no-go.

            The kids all wanted to go ahead with the trip. We wanted to be optimistic that the weather would clear. T.C. said the wind and rain the night before had been so hard the creek was probably littered with fallen limbs and it might be impossible for canoes to get through.

            Daddy said he had always heard that if there’s a spot of blue sky big enough to make a kitten’s britches you should go ahead with your plans. The old saying gave no guidelines for how large the kitten or the style of the britches.

            That day we couldn’t find a single patch of blue in the sky so we cancelled the canoe trip. Other times since then, I’ve spied a spot of blue peeking from behind the clouds and gone ahead with my outdoor plans. The day might have started damp and depressing but the rain didn’t ruin the whole day.

            Sophisticated radars and 24-hour weather updates make old-timey weather clues seem quaint and cryptic. But on dreary mornings when I’m trying to decide whether or not to cancel outdoor plans, I still scan the heavens looking for enough clear blue sky to make a kitten’s britches.

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